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Ringing in your ears

Tinnitus

Sounds in silence

The sound of ringing in the ears is called tinnitus, and is the sensation of phantom sounds even when there is no outside source. Most people have experienced temporary tinnitus for a few hours or days after exposure to loud noises, but for hundreds of millions of people around the world, it is a permanent condition. The most affected are those who spend a lot of time in loud places, like musicians, factory workers, or even teachers in schools. Tinnitus is also becoming more common among younger people due to increased daily noise levels and the high volume of music played on headphones.

The experience of tinnitus can vary a lot between individuals, and can be heard as ringing, humming, or buzzing in one or both ears, or anywhere in the head. Though the sound of tinnitus can only be heard by the person experiencing it, it is not a product of the imagination, but a very real affliction. The majority of tinnitus sufferers also experience psychological side effects from the constant stress of the ringing that may have a devastating impact on their daily lives. Tinnitus is usually a symptom of an underlying problem – damage to the ear, hearing loss, or circulatory system disorder. Though there is presently no cure for tinnitus, many people do not know that there are ways to alleviate the effects with correct treatment.

Causes

Common causes of tinnitus can be from age, noise exposure, ear wax blockage, or changes in the ear bones. Generally, tinnitus is related to damage to the inner ear (the cochlea), leading to misfiring of the auditory neurons. For example, when the fine hair cells of the inner ear are broken or bent following sustained exposure to noise, or when there is mechanical trauma, they can ‘leak’ electrical signals to the brain even when they are not being stimulated by external sound. Stress and fatigue have been reported worsen tinnitus.

Less common causes of tinnitus: Meniere’s disease, temporomandibular joint disorders, head and neck injuries, acoustic neuroma, certain medications, especially aspirin.

Symptoms

Tinnitus sounds like ringing, buzzing, clicking, or hissing in the ears, and the volume can range from barely audible to roaring. It can feel so loud that it affects the person’s ability to hear actual sounds, and it can be present all the time, or come and go.

Common associated, or secondary problems include fatigue, stress, sleep problems, difficulties with concentration and memory, depression, and anxiety. For many tinnitus sufferers the problem is most noticeable at night. As the din of daily activities subsides, tinnitus becomes more prominent.

The psychological problems may affect the tinnitus sufferer’s social life. General fatigue and lack of energy eventually affects friends and family. Attention may be drawn away from work and leisure activities.

Treatment

The first step is to treat any underlying cause of tinnitus. This may involve prompt care for an ear infection, discontinuing any ototoxic medications, or treating any temporomandibular joint (TMJ) problems, which affect the joint between the jaw bone and the cheek bone.

If physical issues have been resolved or ruled out, the symptoms of tinnitus can be alleviated with special hearing aids that have a therapeutic tinnitus-masking program. This kind of program can hide the irritating sounds of tinnitus with background white noise. Hearing aids can be particularly helpful if there is also a hearing loss in addition to tinnitus.

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I can enjoy silence again

“I went to my share of loud concerts in my younger years. Now I’ve had tinnitus with some hearing loss for about ten years, and since I started protecting my ears it hasn’t got any worse. Looking after your ears is unfortunately something you don’t think about until there’s a problem. I wish I’d thought about it earlier. These days I use hearing aids, which helps with the ringing and gets me through the day.”

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The first step to recovering your quality of life from the effects of tinnitus is a consultation with one of our hearing care experts.

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